Liverpool's Champions League future to be determined by transfer policy over next 72 hours
With 72 hours left of the January transfer window, one wonders if Liverpool owner John W Henry is already preparing his open letter to the supporters.
You’ll recall how in September 2012 Henry felt compelled to offer an explanation for why Brendan Rodgers would have only one striker for the first six months of his reign.
Liverpool had failed to sign Fulham’s Clint Dempsey but still allowed Andy Carroll to go on loan to West Ham.
“We will buy prudently and cleverly and never again waste resources on inflated transfer fees and unrealistic wages,” Henry explained.
“We have no fear of spending and competing with the very best but we will not overpay for players.”
Looking back, Henry would be entitled to applaud himself. Dempsey lasted a year at Spurs, Carroll's done nothing but increase medical bills at West Ham and Liverpool eventually signed Daniel Sturridge to create one of the most prolific strike partnerships in their history.
A year from now, the reservations about the value of Mohamed Salah may prove equally justified. Again, that buzz phrase ‘won’t overpay’ was used to explain why Liverpool did not value the Egyptian as highly as Chelsea. We also heard it last summer when Willian ended up at Stamford Bridge.
It seems we are navigating similar territory at the end of every transfer window, the focus on an Anfield transfer policy which is idealistic, honourable and rational but does not seem compatible with the grubby, dishonourable and utterly irrational world of the football transfer.
Just because you think you have a deal with an agent or a chief executive, it doesn’t disqualify him from calling Chelsea, Manchester City or Spurs, quoting the figures and asking if they can do better. There is nothing a wealthier rival loves more than irritating one of those upstarts who reckon they can steal their top four place. That is business. That's the game. If Liverpool could do the same, they would, as they always used to in their heyday whenever they heard a coveted player was available and could be joining Manchester United or Everton. Liverpool would exploit their clout, step in and say: “Thanks very much for doing all the groundwork, we’ll take it from here.”
Salah is a stranger case than Willian because, relatively speaking for top four clubs, the fees appear modest. If you’re not going to be good enough at £16 million, you’re not going to be much use at £11m or even £1m, either, so why bid at all? Clubs never overpay for good players, only poor ones. No-one cares about the the price when class is involved because if they're young enough you can always sell at a profit.
Many of Liverpool’s worst deals were the cheapest. The likes of Philippe Degen, Andriy Voronin and a series of ‘mid-priced’ recruits who knew after six months they’d spend the duration of their Anfield careers being paid handsomely for giving the occasional interview declaring they would fight on to get over their terrible start.
In contrast, most of Liverpool’s finest recent signings were expensive. Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez cost a combined £80 million and can all be called bargains.
Carroll – the most costly dud - would have ended on the bench or on loan whether he was £35,000 or £35 million because he was not good enough. Obviously the price made it much worse but if Carroll had been the English Drogba he’d be still at the club with a £60 million exit clause in his recently signed new deal.
The man who pushed for that transfer lost his job and one can’t escape the conclusion the psychological impact of this is guiding today’s cautious approach. There seems to be a lack of confidence in the judgement of expensive players. Liverpool behave like a club wary of making mistakes, knowing they can’t afford any.
Like any club, they get very tetchy when their ‘transfer policy’ is discussed. They insist it is no different to others, a group of experts – ‘the committee’ – ensuring checks and balances are in place to prevent lousy deals. At the same time, we know Rodgers is a member of the committee, not its leader, and that distinction can’t be ignored when establishing responsibility. There are only Liverpool signings, not Rodgers ones.
The principle is worthy and, given Liverpool’s recent history in affording too much power in managers, understandable. But just because the notion of a committee has merit, it doesn’t mean the individuals who form it should not be questioned when they’re not delivering the targets, especially as the manager is the one who will take most flak from the supporters. As has been stated previously, lack of Champions League football is a major factor in the breakdown of some deals but the question of how the committee calculates market value has never been properly answered.
“We’re not just sitting at computers playing Football Manager,” was a somewhat flippant response not so long ago but we do live in an age where, when it comes to scouting, the geek has inherited the earth.
Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho were excellent signings whose value increased within a month of their recruitment a year ago. Since then, there has been nothing comparable. Simon Mignolet made an excellent start and recent wobbles aside looks a decent capture, but last summer’s transfer activity was broadly speaking mediocre (at best).
If Liverpool finish in the top four, it will be as a consequence of the outfield players Rodgers already had. Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Tiago Ilori have been rarely seen. Mamadou Sakho, who cost £18 million, has not established himself, spending more time in treatment. Kolo Toure is erratic and certainly not the natural replacement for Jamie Carragher as billed. The less said about the loan deals, the better, and a club of Liverpool’s stature should not be begging Chelsea for players for a season anyway. It is beneath them.
Liverpool headed into this transfer window desperate for a defender and midfielder. They spent weeks trying to sign a winger. Last week, Rodgers revealed Glen Johnson has been playing with an injury for a few months and could have broken down at any moment. How could Liverpool not have prepared for his absence?
Tuesday night’s Merseyside derby heralds the start of the latest pivotal period for those chasing the top four and – partly due to injuries - Liverpool’s squad has never looked so thin. That’s also because the squad players have not proved able enough stand-ins.
The next 72 hours will go some way to determining how equipped Liverpool will be to remain in the top four. What happens off the pitch will have as much influence as what we see at Anfield against Everton.